Suggestions for publishing your first book

By Warren Bird

Church Executive asked Warren Bird, co-author of 21 different books to date, all for an audience of church leaders and totaling a half-million total copies in print, for his advice to pastors as first-time authors. This is what he’s experienced and learned.

A lot of church leaders have a story to tell but don’t know how to get it from brain and heart to paper. They wonder whether anyone would be interested in reading it. And they don’t know how to contact publishers – or whether to go the self publishing route.

To further complicate matters, the entire publishing industry is in a state of flux, which also affects ministry books for Christian leaders. As a result, the pathway for birthing a book is changing. Publishers are more cautious about what they accept, especially from first-time authors. New marketing channels are developing for how potential buyers hear about a new book. Publishers are investing smaller financial amounts to publicize most new books. And church budgets are offering their pastors fewer funds to use in buying those new books.

If you’re convinced God wants you to move ahead, here are some decisions you’ll need to make. I framed each as a question people typically ask me.

Do I need an agent?

With each passing year, first-time authors are more likely to need an agent. Mark Sweeney, publishing director for Leadership Network, asserts that most first-time authors should have an agent. “Most publishing houses today will not accept unsolicited queries from first-time authors,” he explains. “Even experienced authors need an agent who can expertly represent their interests to a publisher and steer them through the mine-fields of publishing in this new technological era.” Sweeney has been publisher for Moody Press, Scripture Press, and Word/Thomas Nelson. “Much of what I do now as a literary agent is what I used to do during my 30 years as publisher inside the publishing house,” he says.

Michael Hyatt is publisher at Nelson, founded in 1798, which targets Christians in its content, and releases more new titles each year than any other religious publisher. He writes a great blog. One posting is on why authors need an agent, Another post lists a bunch of literary agents for Christian authors,

In most cases you pay an agent through a percentage of your royalties.

Do I need someone to help me write the book?

It depends. Many people who are great verbal communicators lose their sparkle when they try to ink those same ideas on paper. Others are capable of writing a compelling book, but don’t want to spend the one to three hundred hours typically required to do so. Many people who are strong extroverts, find that that they need constant feedback as they write. In any of these cases, consider hiring a collaborative author who will help create your book either for a fixed fee or a percent of the royalties.

If you need someone to add major content to your ideas, your authorship will probably be an “and” arrangement: Your Name and Collaborative Author’s Name. If you need someone to only significantly edit your own ideas, the authorship is often “with”: Your Name with Someone Else. Or maybe you want to be the sole name on the cover and then generously credit your collaborative writer in the acknowledgments pages.

Whatever you do, please don’t lie! Unfortunately, lots of Christian leaders pay someone else to ghostwrite their book and then their pride won’t allow them to credit the other person.

Many best-selling books have come from collaborative efforts. For example, 90 Minutes in Heaven, approaching 2 million copies in print, was a two-author collaboration. You may have heard that The Shack sold 1 million copies in its first 13 months and several million copies after that, including translation into more than 30 different languages. However, did you know that the author had 20-plus publishing rejections before finally recruiting two novices who spent 16 months helping him rewrite it so it was clear and compelling? They pooled their own money and printed it themselves with the intent that they’d sell it online and see what happened.

If I write a book, how many people will read it?

Sales averages, which are typically lower than actual readership, are rather sobering. The entire U.S. publishing industry sells just over 3 billion new and backlist books a year, with 250-300 million of them being religious books, including Bibles. Christian publishers (roughly 300 in number) receive a combined total of about 250,000 manuscripts per year. On average about 5 percent of those or approximately 12,000 titles a year gets published. The average first printing of a book for a new author is just under 4,700 copies, but that’s a skewed number because it includes a handful of books with giant press runs, such as Joel Osteen’s Your Best Life Now which was several hundred thousand. (Then his Become a Better You, with a first printing was 3 million copies, was the highest for any hardcover book in Simon & Schuster history.)

A few years ago Nielsen Bookscan tracked 1.2 million titles. These were not just new titles, but also titles still in print, and covering religion as well as all other topics. They learned that 950,000 of them sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies, while just 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies a year. Only 10-25 books sell more than a million copies in a year. Fewer than 500 sell more than 100,000. Nearly 200,000 new titles are published each year.

Much of your book’s circulation directly depends on how visible you’re willing and able to be, such as having a well-followed blog or Twitter, speaking at conferences, and the like. In essence, you will write a book and wait a year for it to come off the press. Then you need to get excited about the topic again, and make it the focus in the places you go and speak.

Should I write my book before thinking about publishers?

No. If you go with a traditional publisher, you will need to create something called a proposal. This takes me about 40-80 hours to do. Almost every publisher has guidelines online for how prospective authors can submit a proposal. Typically they want to know your title ideas, the gist of your book, your target audience, why you are uniquely qualified to write this book to this audience, how your book is distinctive from other books that already exist on your topic, what new contribution your book will make, why people will want to read it, proposed length, timetable for completion, and how you as the author will help publicize the book. They’ll also want an annotated outline and a couple of sample chapters, to get a feel for your writing style. All of this work is typically done on speculation – that is, with no guarantee that anyone will publish it.

What about self publishing?

Never before have authors had so many viable options with self publishing. How to decide which way to go? “The most important question for authors to ask is what they want to accomplish with a book,” advises Mark Sweeney. Self-publishing means you pay the publisher, and then you keep 100 percent of the sales. Traditional publishers pay you a royalty to publish your book. Learn what self-publishing can offer and then decide how close it matches your goals. You can pay a self-publishing press to do anything, including marketing and publicity. Self-publishing is an especially viable option for authors with at least a small, built-in audience—for example, speakers and trainers who can easily sell their books at conferences and workshops.

Self-publishing used to be viewed as an opposing direction to traditional publishers, but in recent years the strategy has changed and major publishers have picked up self-published books. In 2006, Pastor Dave Browning self published a 252-page book named Deliberate Simplicity. Zondervan agreed pick it up – if Dave would do significant editing and some updates. In 2009 they released it with the same title, but different subtitle, different cover art, and a shorter length of 208 pages. It has sold more this way than his self-published version did.

The biggest press specializing in Christians is Xulon, which does very short print runs for people who want 50-200 books. Other self-publishing groups include Baxter Press (, which focuses on clients who want 3,000 books or more, and Eureka Publications (, which scales its services to fit the author’s precise needs—whether a full-scale effort with author coaching, strategy and marketing assistance or a more limited engagement that simply helps get a finished manuscript into print.

What about making a book into an audio book, whether for download or CD or Kindle?

In years past, only larger-volume books went audio with traditional publishers, such as ones with 50,000 sales to date (for newer authors) or those with a strong likelihood of reaching that sales level quickly (for established authors). The logic is that audio purchases are often only 10% of print books’ audience size.

This too is changing. Zondervan’s eventual goal is to put all its existing books on audio, but most Christian publishers are not at that level of commitment.

What’s a good royalty advance for a first-time author?

Most publishers expect your book sales in the first year to recoup whatever royalty advance they give you. So if you get a 15 percent “net” royalty and an advance of $2,000 and the publisher lists the book for $18, the average net income to the publisher is $9 (with royalty based on that $9 net amount). Your book is therefore expected to sell at least 1,500 copies during its first year (calculated as $9 net price x 15 percent royalty rate x 1,481 sales = $2,000). Publishers tend to estimate cautiously, so don’t be discouraged if they’re not willing to take a bigger risk on you.

If God is prompting you to write a book, then he will also bring you the advisers and helpers you need. Book writing is a huge undertaking, both in time and emotions. If your book gets a good circulation, it can spread your influence while adding credibility and impact to your message.

Warren Bird, Ph.D., is research director for Leadership Network ( His latest books are A Multi-Site Church Roadtrip, by Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon and Warren Bird and Unleashing the Word by Max McLean and Warren Bird.


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